Gods War: A New History of the Crusades
Gods War: A New History of the Crusades

"To Be Read" Book Review Column: Christopher Tyerman, "God's War: A New History of the Crusades"

Mar 20, 2007

"Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against the flesh and blood. . . Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness, and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace. . .taking the shield of faith. . . and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God." (Ephesians 6:11-17)

Citing this passage from St. Paul, Tyerman makes clear that Paul's message was "wholly contrary to the abbot of Clairvaux's," that is, Bernard of Clairvaux, who preached the Second Crusade. Tyerman continues with Paul: "No man that warreth for God entangleth himself with the affairs of this world" (II Timothy 2:4), followed by "For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds." (II Corinthians 10:3-4).

Tyerman clearly lays out the New Testament tradition for his readers at the beginning of his large and very thoroughly researched treatise on the Crusades. In doing so, he raises this immediate and rather urgent question: how did Bernard of Clairvaux manage to square his preaching of a Crusade with the New Testament?

Tyerman answers carefully: By the time of the Crusades Western Christianity had become only indirectly a scriptural faith. The Church Fathers, Origen, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory I, accomplished the task of translating the New Testament's "inappropriate, obscure, incomplete, contradictory or idealistic apothegms into an intelligible and satisfying system of thought and action within the context of the institutions of an active religion, a temporal church and the daily lives of believers." (29). In other words, detours had to be found around the Sermon on the Mount.

Yet Tyerman is no iconoclast. He goes on to point out that the teaching of the Fathers was not so much a violation of the ideals of the New Testament as one might think. Pacifism and forgiveness pertained to the behavior of the private person. On the other hand, John the Baptist had told soldiers to remain in the army, and Christ told his disciples to pay taxes to Caesar. The Apocalypse of John is full of violence, and the Old Testament is a story of wars that were pleasing to God. The New Testament, then, is an ambiguous heritage, and out of that ambiguity came the thinking of those who preached the Crusades.

When Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome, a distinction arose between a non-fighting clergy and a Christian laity whom the emperor might call upon to fight. This distinction opened up the possibility of just wars, wars, for instance, in defense of the now Christian empire. Tyerman quotes Augustine citing Cicero who says, "it is the injustice of the opposing side that lays on the wise man the duty of waging war." (34) Augustine then lays out the conditions under which warfare may be just.

Unfortunately, the Roman empire faded into the chaos of the early middle ages, and Christians came to rely on war as the glue that held society together. War assumed the dignity of a Christian vocation, second only to the monastic vocation. The Christian warrior was the defender of the church against invading Saracens and Vikings. An emergent Germanic culture poeticized the fact, conceiving of Christ as a "generous mead-giver," of his disciples as his earls. The humiliated and mocked Jesus of the Passion, was transformed into a mighty warrior who mounted his cross as warrior hero. The Christian story became the story of a Lord and his retainers fighting off attacks. Those who bore arms swore to protect the clergy, the poor, the vulnerable. Still, in spite of all this, in spite of Augustine's ethics and the Germans' mythology, a "prevailing ideology remained that, however lawful the conflict, fighting was sinful" (44). Thus far, the rationale for war is defense against attack. But how did a Christian rationale for defense become a Christian rationale for attack?

More or less in the following way: A sermon preached by Pope Urban II in the Auvergne in 1095 set "in train one of the most renowned sequence of events in the history of western Europe and Christianity." (58) Behind Urban's preaching of a Crusade, according to Tyerman, was his schematic view of Christian history: an idealized picture of the purity of the early church; its corruption by human sins that allowed the conquest of ancient Christian centres by Islam from the seventh century; the eleventh-century Christian recovery of lands lost in Spain, Sicily and finally the eastern Mediterranean; this reconquest manifesting an opportunity for a general Christian renewal through divine grace, a process in which the pope performed as God's executor and coadjutor.Once more we see the ambiguity: "the material objective to aid Byzantium and the eastern Christians and recapture the Holy City enmeshed with the transcendent purpose of serving God by liberating the Holy Sepulchre as an individual and collective act of piety and redemption." (66-67) Urban was calling in the name of God for Holy War. There is nothing, of course, in the New Testament that requires Christians to possess Jerusalem or the Holy Sepulchre. Christianity has survived for all subsequent centuries without either one. Neither does Christianity today depend for its survival on the Vatican or St. Peter's. There were long years when there was no Pope in the Vatican.

The impulse to conquer Jerusalem was purely mythic. There was and is no foundation for it in theology. Tyerman connects it with "the genre of eschatological literature popular in western monasteries, cathedrals, and courts." (69) Eschatology, the end time, the heavenly Jerusalem! Of course, the earthly Jerusalem was in fact reclaimed. For a time. The crusade was a success. None of the other crusades was. For me, the value of Tyerman's work is his elaboration of a series of mythic battles which, from the beginning, contradicted the values of the New Testament.

In other respects, Tyerman is less satisfying. His story proceeds logically from crusade to crusade. But within each section there is little interest in explaining strategies, the importance of this that or the other battle. It is not about battles, strategies, changes on the map. It is about the politics of the warriors, their recruitment, their dynastic ups and downs, their commitment or failure of commitment. Significant battles appear only in connection with the life and/or death of this that or the other crusader. The name of a battle starts appearing only as dynastic shifts are recounted. In this book characters are not introduced. They simply appear and disappear. If a name recurs frequently you realize that this must be an important figure. Unless of course two have the same name, which happens often enough, and you find yourself reading about a heretic on one page who, on the next, appears to be a defender of the faith. Same name; different folks. As for the action, you are reading along and suddenly find yourself actually reading about a crusade. Then you wake up to the fact that action has been going on all along, intrigues, rivalries, murders, whatever. The "action" of the crusade is somehow or other the product of all these other actions, which lead up to, entangle, and come after the crusade. The action of the crusade is lost in the tangle of everything else. It is certainly not the most important thing. Which is what makes this book a very tough read. The narrative bogs down in dynastic swamps, endless lists of counts, ladies, kings.

War, as they say, is hell. But war in the Middle Ages was something else. A mess. A royal mess. It's far less about strategy and bravery than it is about palace intrigues, multiple wives, scheming cousins, cynical bishops and wild preachers, an inscrutable tangle of human relationships which make strategy and bravery almost irrelevant. A king dies. His whole army, thousands of men, hundreds of knights, dissipates. Some wander home; others take up residence here and there, some fight on.

I end by recommending the book. But it is a book for the determined and the courageous. The perspective Tyerman gives to the Crusades is admirable. But the details—the details are endless.

Christopher Tyerman, God's War: A New History of the Crusades. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

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